While the vast majority of human civilization is land-based, we cannot escape the fact that the Earth is 71% water. With such an overwhelming abundance of seas, rivers and lakes, it’s no surprise that civilizations have been feuding over sea passages and strategic water-based territory since before the Bronze Age. In an attempt to more convincingly preside over these territories, some nations have strived to improve their naval technology and rule the seas. Today, the world boasts some truly magnificent fleets.
Before comparing modern fleets, it would be productive to revisit history in order to properly calibrate what constitutes an impressive navy. The largest naval fleet of all time belonged to the United States during World War II. At its peak, the US navy consisted of 6,768 vessels. In all likelihood, this record will never be broken as fleets have been gradually shrinking and consolidating since.
At present, North Korea’s navy, the Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF) is the world’s largest by total active assets. The isolated East Asian nation possesses a total of 967 vessels, including 438 patrol boats, 86 submarines, 25 mine-warfare vessels, 10 frigates and more. Although North Korea’s total naval assets exceed second placed China by over 200, the KPANF is not nearly as powerful as it’s ranking would suggest.
In the 21st century, the primary focus of the North Korean military has been ballistic, long-ranged missiles. The navy has received limited funding and resources during this time. In 2020, the entire North Korean military had a budget of approximately $3.6 billion. While still a very large figure, KPANF spending is not in the same ballpark as some of the other contenders. As a result, most of North Korea’s navy consists of largely outdated Soviet or Chinese-built vessels. Additionally, the KPANF is considered a “brown-water” navy, meaning it is most effective in rivers, lakes, and coastlines, and would fare far less well on the open sea. Although North Korea’s navy is technically the largest in the world, it would be quite naive to say that their navy is the strongest.
The world’s largest navies by total active naval assets:
The aforementioned Chinese navy ranks second in total naval assets. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) presides over 714 vessels including 220 patrol boats, 73 submarines, 29 mine-warfare vessels, 50 frigates and more. Although China has fewer total assets, their ships are more modern and constantly improving. The PLAN also employs around 240,000 personnel up from North Korea’s 60,000 personnel.
The United States has the largest navy by personnel, with over 400,000 actively enlisted. The United States also holds a distant third place by fleet size, consisting of 415 total assets. The United States spends more on their navy than any other country in the world, with an annual budget of $161.04, which is about 45 times as much as North Korea spends on their entire military. In reality, however, the United States has a very strong case for the world’s strongest navy.
One deficiency of evaluating naval strength based strictly on asset count is that it doesn’t weigh the different kinds of ships properly against one another. For example, the United States has 11 active aircraft carriers, more than any other country by a wide margin. The average aircraft carrier is around 1,100 feet long (comparable to 3 football fields in size), weighs 90,000 tons and costs around $13 billion to produce. At capacity, one of these behemoths can carry up to 90 small aircraft at once. On the flip side, patrol boats (which comprise the majority of the KPANF) are often just 100 feet long and cost just $25-50 million for state-of-the-art models. However, on a list that considers assets above all else, these ships have the same value: one asset.
Given this glaring shortcoming, perhaps there is a better way to evaluate naval size. One way that may more closely align with presumed naval strength would be to do so by tonnage, the total combined weight of a navy’s fleet. When considering tonnage, an aircraft carrier (90,000 tons) is worth approximately 1,250 patrol boats (72 tons). By tonnage, the United States dwarfs the rest of the world, possessing a fleet tonnage of approximately 3,415,893 tons. This figure is greater than the combined sum of the next thirteen heaviest navies. North Korea doesn’t crack the top ten in terms of tonnage, but China and Russia retain high-ranking spots.
The world’s largest navies by tonnage: